Food allergies are on the rise–and while health experts aren’t exactly sure why, the growing prevalence of these chronic, potentially deadly, conditions pose real risks for students and their schools.
NSBA’s School Health Programs examined the issue on Nov. 9 with a webcast that featured national experts, district officials, and families who shared personal stories, policy challenges and best practices occurring throughout the country.
While there are about 170 different foods associated with allergies, eight are responsible for 90 percent of allergic reactions, said Stefano Luccioli, a senior medical adviser for the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Food Additive Safety.
Peanuts, tree nuts, milk, and eggs are among the list’s worst offenders, though children usually outgrow allergies to the latter two by the time they reach adulthood. In what quantities and to what degree these foods elicit severe allergic reactions is largely unknown, says Luccioli, though studies have shown delays in administering epinephrine injections account for 90 percent of the fatalities.
Surprisingly there are no national standards on how schools should address food allergies among students, though there are six main components to addressing chronic conditions that every district should heed, said Pete Hunt, the lead health scientist at the Adolescent and School Health division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which sponsored the webcast.
Creating a positive, receptive school climate; adopting a coordinated approach; establishing written emergency protocols; implementing practices to minimize exposure to allergens; training staff; and developing culturally and developmentally appropriate health education for students and staff are proactive and preventative steps that schools and districts should take, Hunt said.
The devil is in the details, however, as countless schools that have been ensnared or threatened with litigation over the years have discovered. Though it’s unlikely schools will be liable if a child ingests a food allergen, a district puts itself in jeopardy if it is not explicit about preventative measures and emergency protocol, said NSBA Senior Staff Attorney Lisa Soronen.
For example, allergens need to be discussed and planned for in all school settings, the types and frequency of training needs to be spelled out, and a crisis plan needs to assign tasks, Soronen said.
“Things like who’s in charge of administering the EpiPen need to be figured out,” she said.
The most successful approaches to addressing food allergies among students involve multiple players in the school and families.
“The key is educating the school community and parents and keeping the communication lines open,” said Lori Danella, the nutrition coordinator for Lee’s Summit School District R-7 in Missouri. “It takes everyone to be successful.”